JASON OAKLEY TALKED TO RICHARD MOSSE, ABOUT REPRESENTING IRELAND AT THIS YEAR’S VENICE BIENNALE, DURING THE COURSE OF THE INSTALLATION OF HIS WORK AT THE IRISH PAVILION
Jason Oakley: How and where does this questionnaire find you? Where are you at with your work for Venice?
Richard Mosse: I am currently in Venice, working inside the Irish Pavilion, which this year is the Fondaco Marcello editing the multi-channel film, The Enclave, within the space. The final installation will happen in May.
JO: Are you showing all new works or a mixture of old and new?
RM: I will show all new work. Everything in the Pavilion is work that was produced in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012. The Enclave is the culmination of Infra, a project I have been working on since 2010.
JO: Could you briefly describe the works you will be showing?
RM: The Pavilion is situated in San Marco on the Grand Canal, with its own private jetty. There are two main rooms inside the Pavilion. The smaller room, overlooking the Grand Canal, is about 80 square meters. I am planning on hanging three very large landscape photographs in this space. The bigger room is a large squarish chamber, about 280 square meters, with round supporting columns, beams and rafters, which is where we will present the main component of the exhibition: the film, The Enclave. The Fondaco is the only building situated on the Grand Canal that is not a palazzo, so in that sense it’s a very appropriate space for an art installation, as the space is more like a warehouse than a domestic or church space.
The Enclave will be presented on multiple screens installed inside the larger darkened chamber. The screens will hang from the rafters, each one touching a column. By placing each screen adjacent to a column my hope is to activate the architecture, working with it rather than resisting the columns, which are difficult to work around. The screens can be viewed from both sides, creating a sort of sculptural labyrinth within the space. The viewer must actively participate in the piece spatially, moving through the chamber according to the work’s emphasis on sound and vision. In this respect, I learned greatly from the choreography of Gerard Byrne’s piece A man and a woman make love (2012), although, as you’ll see, the work couldn’t be more different.
JO: Could you expand upon some of the key issues you will be exploring?
RM: The Enclave changes styles throughout, shifting gears between the anthropological, the metaphoric, the lyrical, surrealism and the absurd. The piece is about the three ‘Rs’: the real (as in documentary realism), the Real (in the Lacanian sense)(1), and the reel (as in the newsreel). It is quite different to my earlier photographs from Congo simply because motion picture and still photography are such extremely different animals. Motion picture strikes the heart immediately, rather like music, while still photography is more reflective, more endless, yet less proximate. The Enclave is deeply visceral, sometimes terrifying. You can’t really achieve that with still photographs in the same way. They are a slower burn.
I’ve put everything I have into this. It’s all there. This is my Congo. The landscape’s radiant beauty and the volatile, turgid climate, married to such an unstable conflict situation, have put me in a very peculiar place. Travelling in Congo, I feel at once deeply lucid yet entirely lost in my imagination, in my waking dreams, often verging into nightmare. As these journeys have evolved, and the deeper into the conflict that I have found myself, this state has pushed me further out. It’s a pursuit of the sublime, a very personal one, but dressed in the tidy uniform of the documentary photographer.
What is the piece about? It describes an escalating conflict situation in North and South Kivu throughout 2012. The camps of the internally displaced, a child’s lullaby that describes finding piles of bodies in the bushes, rebels being blessed with bullet-proof potion by their prophet, dead bodies left to rot on the road, a rebel propaganda rally in which children jump through a burning ring of fire, footage of actual conflict captured while mortars were landing all around, the radiant landscape during rainy season, glowing a nauseous pink. These are our subjects, and they are represented through a crystallisation of styles and transgression.
JO: Has the particular site and context of the Irish exhibition space at Venice had any bearing on the work you are showing and making there?
RM: Yes. Since the Fondaco’s owner, Countess Marcello, will only agree to rent the space for one year at a time, we have had the privilege of editing the piece within the space itself. It has had a huge bearing on resolving the final installation of the work.
JO: Could you talk a bit about your working relationship with Anna O’Sullivan (Director of the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny), your commissioner and curator, and the rest of the team working on this show?
RM: It’s very strong indeed. Anna, the director of the Butler Gallery, is an old friend from Kilkenny, where I grew up. The project manager, Mary Cremin, and all of us, have been working like maniacs on Venice against all the odds. I’m confident it will be a strong exhibition.
JO: Has the Venice exhibition given you the opportunity to realise works that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible?
RM: I suppose it pushed me to finish producing The Enclave with an aggression and ambition that perhaps otherwise could not have been justified. It gave me a reason to really strike as hard as possible, to return to Congo and to put everything I have into this work. I see Venice as the greatest opportunity of my career, so naturally I am doing everything I can to make the work as strong as possible. It is a huge honour.
JO: Have you found making and installing work for the Biennale different from your usual way of working or experience of exhibiting?
RM: Yes. I have never really worked closely with a curator before, especially in terms of producing the work, so that is a new experience, though Anna O’Sullivan has given me a lot of space to breathe. It’s also allowed me to bring people onto the team and really collaborate with others, such as Trevor Tweeten (cinematographer and editor), Ben Frost (composer) and John Holten (assistant), who travelled with me in Congo and who contributed enormously to the final piece. I have learned a great deal through this collaboration. Meanwhile, I have been working on a new book, also titled The Enclave, to be published by Aperture Foundation, which is a rather ambitious monograph of around 240 pages.
JO: How conscious have you been of showing work in the context of the Biennale – be that in the context of Venice in general or in relation to the specific characteristics of the biennale and the particular audience and attention it gets?
RM: I’ve been to each Biennale since 2005, when I went with a group of Goldsmith’s postgraduate fine art students. I have a sense of which works create a sort of catharsis at Venice, and I guess my ambition is to head in that direction. We’re at a bit of a disadvantage, so far from the Arsenale / Giardini, but it makes the viewing much more special, as the piece is not crowded by other voices, and it becomes a much purer experience.
JO: How relevant to you is the notion of representing your country, Ireland?
RM: I never make work in or about Ireland but I see all my work, throughout my career, made in war or post conflict situations from Iraq to Gaza, the former Yugoslavia to Congo, and further afield, as speaking sideways about Ireland. It’s a gesture of transference. Sometimes it’s easier to speak about yourself through other people’s problems!
JO: Do you have any strong thoughts about the Venice Biennale or Biennales in general as contexts for showing work and hubs for debate, knowledge production, reflection and overview?
RM: They’re handy ways to see a ton of art without that feeling that you’ve had the oxygen sucked out of your blood, which always happens at art fairs. You just need stamina though, particularly for the three-day Biennale opening, and to take care with the Prosecco.
Note: 1. See Jacques Lacan, French psychoanalyst’s 1953 lecture, Le symbolique, l’imaginaire et le réel (The symbolic, the imaginary, and the real)